Love or survival

Working, as I currently do, for a large company which interfaces with startups always brings up the question among people of whether working for a startup or a large corporation is the best type of job. But over the years, I’ve started to think that to compare big vs. small is the wrong approach and that the better question should frame whether you love what you’re doing or are doing it for survival. Here’s why.

Why big vs. small is not the right model

Whenever people in startups bring up the question, there is usually a suspicion that large corporations are evil environments. A lot of people who are in startups are taking refuge from the type of drone-like jobs that can, at times, exist in large organization.

I’m not going to come to the defense of such jobs but I started having second thoughts about that approach once I put my mind to what happens when a startup grows up and becomes a large corporation: how does one handle such transition and how does a company retain its best talent when it becomes larger.

Some companies (Google, for example) look to perks as a way to attract people: free food, entertainment, etc… Those are great but I suspect that ultimately, they are not the thing that retains talent. Business Insider recently ran a feature story that covered the balance of perks vs. employee happiness this week and it appears that the perks are not enough to keep morale up.

At the same time, there can be a lot of fun for employees in large companies when they ship a new feature on an existing product or a brand new product because the impact that product or feature has on the market is magnified due to the company’s pre-existing track record. For example, people in the tech community may not be excited about Windows 7 but people who worked on it have already had an impact on tens of millions of customers. That can be quite a rush.

What was interesting is that all the companies listed were large companies. Startups didn’t seem to be on the list of 25 best tech companies to work for. Did that mean that startups are not good companies to work for?


Startups have a lot of excitement as the contribution of every employee can have a marked impact on where the company goes as a whole. It’s a pretty awesome feeling but, on the other hands, startups can be all-consuming, with long work hours and sometimes frustration if a company is not getting traction. Life in a startup is no easier than it is in a big company, just different.

So having established that startups and large companies have both advantages and disadvantages, it seems that using that model can’t work when a transition from one state (startup) to the other (large company) happens.

Do you love the job or the perks?

With that in mind, I started getting suspicious of people who look at perks as the most important thing. I was recently talking to R. , a former co-worker at a startup, who was telling me about a friends of ours who went to work at Apple. He told me “he was tasked by Steve Jobs to come up with this product and deliver it in only a few weeks and he did. So they sent him and his family to Disneyworld.”

What was interesting to me in the statement was the first part: this person was given a seemingly impossible task (deliver big product on what seems like an impossible schedule) and achieved it. The second part was much less interesting but when I recounted that to someone I know at a large company, his focus was on the reward.

For too many people, unfortunately, the reward is all that matters. J., a employee in a large corporation that has existed for over a century, was chatting with me about recent defections to a competitor: “you know it’s going to be the same kind of problems at the competitor so why not jump if the compensation is better. They (meaning companies in that established industry) are all the same.” Unsurprisingly that person does not love the job.

Similarly, I was talking to D., who is currently involved in the early (just post-seed financing) stage of a startup. D. had been a senior executive in a very large corporation for many decades. He was telling me about his frustration in the startup: “what I love about a job is the work of convincing people that something is a right idea. In this startup, I propose something and everyone seems to agree it’s the way to go and so we go do it. It’s not as much fun.” Later, D. told me that he was being compensated mostly on equity and that it would be a really amazing compensation package once the startup reached a liquidity event. Once again, this is a person who’s not enamored with his job but who’s looking at the compensation as the reason to stick around.

What it comes down to is that, for a lot of people, the compensation matters a lot more than the work. In “The Paper“, one of Ron Howard’s most under-appreciated movies, Robert Duvall plays an editor and, at one point, he says:

Most people don’t care about what we write. They go to work to pay their mortgage and put food on the table but they don’t give a damn about what happens in the world.

At the time, this made quite an impression on me because I considered it to be a very cynical view of the world. But, as time has gone on I have bumped into a lot of those people, in both small and large companies and what I’ve found to be the biggest differentiator between a valuable employee and one that’s just filler is that the valuable people are the one who love what they’re doing.

A person who loves his or her job carries that love like an infectious disease and eventually spreads it to other people. For example, I was recently chatting with someone who works for the New York Sanitation department. That person’s job is to deal with how to best dispose of New York City’s garbage. Now, most people would think (and I admit I did before chatting with that person) that garbage is the most boring subject in the world. But the person was so excited about this job that, after a few minutes of conversation with the person, I started to get excited about garbage.

I’ve met doctors, accountants, regulators, sales people, engineers, and taxi drivers who spoke in glowing terms about their respective jobs and position and what I’ve discovered is that even the most mundane and boring subject can turn to magic in the hands of someone who loves his or her job.

For many years, in interviews, I’ve asked people the following question: “imagine I gave you $100 million with no strings attached today. What would you be doing then?” It’s amazing the number of people who answer about something different than the job they apply for. The ones that don’t, or that provide some kind of variation on what the job duties are, are true gold and have never failed to exceed my expectations (and I have high expectations).

So ask yourself today: do you love what you’re doing? And if you don’t, are you doing it just because of the compensation and perks? If you’ve answered yes to the last question, it’s time to start thinking about what job would get you to answer yes to the first because I can guarantee you that if you fail to answer yes to the first question, the compensation and perks will eventually evaporate and then you’ll ask yourself what happened.

Final note: How to survive

When I tell people about this, the main objection is “but the stuff I love can’t pay my bills.” It’s true that not all jobs are as remunerative so there is a transition from being a job survivor (people who do it for the compensation and perks) to being a job lover (people who do it for love). Before taking on that transition, you need to plan for it: do a budget.

Are there things that you’re doing outside of your job to make it more bearable to do you job currently? Are there things that you love doing that could be incorporated in your new “more loved” job? Are there things you could do without. I’m not saying that there won’t be some sacrifices along the way but there is always a better balance.

The reason I tell you to go do the things you love is that, in doing so, you will not only find your work more enjoyable but you will do better work and, with better work, you will eventually see better compensations that will eventually meet and exceed the ones you had in your survival job. I encourage you to to read “Hackers and Painters” for a better understanding of how you could make that transition.

In “Oh, the places you’ll go“, Dr. Seuss put it best:

… there’s a good chance

you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.

There are some, down the road between hither and yon,

that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.

But on you will go

though the weather be foul

On and on you will hike.

And I know you’ll hike far

and face up to your problems

whatever they are.

And will you succeed?

Yes! You will, indeed!

(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)

Today is your day!

Your mountain is waiting.

So… get on your way!

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12 Comments. Leave new

Adam Behrens
July 25, 2010 1:48 pm

This is why I became a veterinarian.


    So glad you actually took that path. Vet school is a very hard thing, from what I understand, and takes the true dedication of someone who follows their passion to survive. I know you did that after a career in the internet field and am so glad you finally discovered your passion.

Great video on the same subject

Great article!

Astrida Valigorsky
July 31, 2010 12:09 am

I still love what I do, and I should have made a budget 10 years ago!!

Tania Garrett Mulry
July 31, 2010 12:10 am

First, you caught my attention with the book – it is my favorite graduation gift to friends and relatives (stuffed with a little cash to help the teen get over the horror of being given a baby book).

Second, the post was really exceptional. Having worked at soul wrenching investment banks, other banking-type institutions and small marketing agencies in a giant conglomorate for the better part of 2 decades, and then escaping to start up land, I could really relate to both sides of the debate.

Here’s where I net out…it is hard to start off your career doing what you love – the pay is probably peanuts, and the prestige just doesn’t seem to match what others expect for you, so you take the soulless job with compensation, prestige and perks. You make it work for as long as you can. You excel, because that’s who you are and what you do, but you are always making excuses for why you should stay, why you should fight for one more raise and promotion, and why your work has meaning.

Then you hit another part of the curve, the “it’s now or never” section of the curve – where you realize that work that fulfills you on another level means more than the perks, prestige and compensation.

A good friend of mine chose, at age 47, with a job, three kids and a good marriage, to follow his dream and become a firefighter. He died fighting a house fire last week, and today they buried him. But, he loved what he did. He felt his work had true purpose and meaning. He saved lives and he died a hero.

It takes real guts and bravery to hold out for your dream job, and even more gumption to create your dream job, which is where start ups come into existence. If you try to do this without having the benefit of past financial success to bolster your finances during the start up curve, it is a recipe for disaster.

So, this is a long winded way of saying, yes, create a budget! Make sure you can afford to follow your dream, then go for it! You only live once.

Thanks for your post!


    The pay in whatever job you start is peanuts so why not do it right from the get-go? And as far as what others expect of you, that is a prison in itself.


    Thanks for sharing those thoughts. The reason for creating a budget is that what you love is not necessarily very remunerative initially (I do believe, though, that if you love your job, you’ll excel at it and move up the rank because of that, solving some (but not always all) of the financial issues.

    And thanks for sharing the story of your friend. It is so unfortunate to lose such dedicated people to tragedy and I would like to send good vibes to those around him.

Awesome article, bro!

But i DO think there’s a flip side. I’ve done what i LOVE for four years now – there are days that i honestly think, “holy cow, i’m being paid to have fun! How the heck did i get here?” and thank my lucky stars. But coming from a profession notorious for not paying people what they’re worth and for grueling hours, there is a point where the lack of financial compensation and the monopolization of your entire life by your job starts to outweigh the love of the job.

I can tell you this from having seen multiple, multiple people having walked down that path – and then have watched them go to a different job with better hours and better pay and have ended up so much happier in LIFE. They’ve stayed that way years later and found a way to turn their job into something they like, even if they don’t LOVE it. It’s a fine line and it’s the rare person in the world who truly finds the job that they love with the financial compensation that they desire.


    You’re so right.

    It’s so unfortunate that people take advantage of such dedication and abuse people who love their profession. Any idea as to how one could fight something like that.

    You’re not the first person to mention it as an issue (and it’s something I’ve bumped into myself at times throughout my career).

    I guess the real secret is finding balance (I actually have a future post queued up on that very subject as I believe that there’s a fine live between an all-burning love for you’re doing and a way to live life. Thanks for reminding me that I need to go through that one soon 🙂 )